Know Thy Enemy- The Making of a Great Villain

Detective interviewing suspect in dark private room

So, you have a theme in mind: justice, revenge, friendship- a theme can be anything. But a great idea has to be universal- it must play the heartstrings of your readers. It knots into the expectations of your audience. The central psychology of stories varies somewhat by the era. If you want your book to surface among the classics, you must have the longevity of a timeless theme. You have to touch upon the common sub-consciousness: story and character archetypes which have been passed on in literature, movies, and music.

What does your villain symbolize? What does he/she stand for? This is important.

Evil dressed up

Christianity has embedded the notions of good and evil into western writing. Great monotheistic religions have similar theories of hell and the devil. The antagonist, if he is a real villain in the classical sense, embodies the ancient idea of the dark one.

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Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

We love evil characters. I know I do. Some of the actors I admire have played iconic embodiments of darkness: like Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s list. What could be eviler than a man who shoots a small boy in the back, or tortures a defenseless woman daily?

The antagonist is a vessel for your book’s theme. He dresses up the devil. He is the opposite of your hero’s goal. But remember that evil must be proved through constant actions of vileness. If you litter the pages of your villain with murder and mutilation, one good deed gets more attention.

You want your readers to understand your antagonist, don’t you?

If he/she doesn’t have a tiny speck of goodness, how could people relate to his story? The nightmare embodied has to be understandable. Some of the best monsters show mercy or love to the heroine/hero: like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter protecting the main character, Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Ways to show a speck of “good” inside your antagonist:

  • He/she doesn’t understand what he/she is doing
  • The villain thinks that he is right, that he has the proper moral grounds
  • Ends sanctify the means: world-domination is required to set history straight
  • He suffered from violence and abuse as a child
  • He is a psychopath- and this is really hard to relate to but makes him interesting if you do your research
  • He understands the meaning of his actions in the end
  • Love redeems him. I don’t believe in this one because we each love in our way. Evil loves with murder and violence loves with a punch in the eye. If you have serious writing skills, you can make this one float though.
  • He loves animals or his children. He can’t be totally evil, can he?

Of course, if your villain is simply seething with malevolence, you can kill him in the end. Justice is redeemed and you stand your moral ground.

In real life, the most ruthless violent bastard usually wins. I’m sorry.

Remember that some of the cruelest monsters in world history have believed in their own ideology. Whatever you can conjure from the depths of hell, can never compare to the good intentions which have paved the road to the real-life inferno of genocide.

Description

A good villain can be a pain in the ass for your protagonist. But does he talk to you? If you’re like me, he/she bothers you when you should fall asleep or drive a car, or take the kids to daycare.

How is his/her voice? Raspy? Seducing? Deep? Beware of cliches. How about whiny, wiry, oppressing?

Describing hands or voice or movement is more fertile than the usual color of eyes and hair. What are his mannerisms and bad habits? How does he move? What does he do for a living? And the job is essential. It’s the first question which we ask when we make acquaintance.

If you want to twist the usual clichés, give him a job which conflicts with his evil.

Stalin
Josif Stalin

Thinking about actors who could play your villain helps to visualize your monster. You can find animated gifs about almost every actor from the roles they’ve played. I use the gifs to describe different facial expressions and movements.

If your style is film noir, look up 40’s faces. If your princess of horror roams the distant future, try sci-fi movie actresses.

Searching the web with words like “greatest movie villains” will most likely offer you a library of wickedness which you can build from.

Each depiction is famous for a reason.

If you’re a history buff like me, you will find a catalog of despicable people on the pages of history books. I like to have a real-life equivalent for my villains.

Character Questionnaire

Letting the antagonist answer your questions during a character interview is a great way to get to know your villain.

The net is full of questionnaire forms, like https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire

Character mannerism lists: https://www.wattpad.com/84533439-a-list-of-500-character-quirks-and-traits-list-1

To avoid information indigestion, make your own list, which suits the novel you are writing at the moment.

And finally, check out your favorite books. Read the epic pages which:

  • introduce the villain and describe him
  • what happens to him in the end?
  • How does the writer show some admirable traits among the constant darkness of evil?
  • What’s his relationship with the hero/heroine?
  • What are his mannerisms, his bad habits, his job, his hobbies, etc.? President Snow tended to roses in his garden in The Hunger Games. And his role was played by one of the greatest character actors: Donald Sutherland.
  • What does he stand for?
  • How do you identify with the antagonist? Can you understand his motives? Why?

I keep a writer’s journal on my favorite villains. I have page after page of classic villainy from the authors I respect. There’s no way- ever- my villain can topple O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984.